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Effective Feedback: The Little Known Secret To Pixar’s Creative Success

2015 June 24
by Greg Satell

With 15 Academy Awards and an average worldwide gross of over $600 million per film, Pixar might just be the most successful creative enterprise ever—and one of the most profitable.  Out of the 14 features the firm has produced, all but one have made the list of top 50 highest grossing animated movies.

Yet in his memoir, Creativity, Inc., Pixar founder Ed Catmull writes that “early on, all of our movies suck.”  The trick, he points out, is to go beyond the initial germ of an idea and undergo the time consuming and laborious work it takes to get something “from suck to not-suck.”

That takes more than talent, it takes a deeply collaborative process that has been honed over decades.  At the center of that process—and all creative processes, in fact—is productive feedback.  While at most places, feedback is often a fairly informal, freewheeling exercise, at Pixar, it is a highly disciplined affair.  And that, as it turns out, makes all the difference.

Every Idea Starts Out As An Ugly Baby

People tend to think that great works are born out of sublime inspiration.  There may be some truth to that, but it’s only a small part of the story.  Catmull calls Pixar’s initial ideas “ugly babies,” because they start out, “awkward and unformed, vulnerable and incomplete.” Not everyone can see what those ugly babies can grow into.

The problem is that there is always a tendency to compare an early idea to a finished project. What’s more, we tend to compare them to the best of the genre.  It’s much easier to remember a classic scene from Casablanca than an outtake from Ishtar.  So it’s crucial to see a new idea’s potential, as well as its shortcomings.

That’s very hard to do.  Everybody’s seen runaway hits like Toy Story and Finding Nemo, yet very few knew them when they were awkward, ugly babies. That makes it tempting to want to kill new ideas in the cradle, but it’s important to protect them.  Every great work was an ugly baby at some point.

“Originality is fragile,”  Catmull writes.  The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations.  The new needs friends.”  “Our job is to protect our babies from being judged too quickly.  Our job is to protect the new.”

Feedback Requires Candor, Trust And Empathy

While rushing to judgment can stop the creative process in its tracks, excessive positivity can be just as bad.  The only way an ugly baby idea can get better is through honest feedback. You have to identify problems before you can solve them and the sooner that happens, the better.  Every creator has to face hard truths.

However, that requires trust.  An idea is never just an idea, but also a part of the person who puts it forward.  It’s easy for someone to walk in and say, “that doesn’t work,” or “I don’t like it,” but that produces nothing.  It only stops the creative process in its tracks.  Feedback should never be personal or the expression of a mere opinion.

The best way to help someone else’s work is to treat it as if it was your own.  To invest yourself as much as if it was your ugly baby, rather than to merely sit in judgment of it.  A creative project can only reach its true potential if everybody is working toward its success.

Unfortunately, relatively few people are in a position to do that effectively.

Keeping The Cooks Out Of The Kitchen

One of the key principles of creativity is that you want to take ideas from everywhere.  Truly original ideas never come from any one place, but from synthesizing disparate domains and applying them to a new context.  However, while casting a wide net is great for generating ideas, it’s often fatal for developing them

When Catmull and John Lasseter took over the Disney’s animation studio, which by that time had fallen far from its former glory, the first thing they noticed was that its system for providing feedback was broken. Directors would receive three sets of notes, delivered as a mandatory checklist of things to be corrected, which often conflicted with each other.

At Pixar, there is a group called the “braintrust,” made up of a small group of the company’s top directors and producers that is charged with giving feedback to films in development. Importantly, everyone on the braintrust is a filmmaker and is capable of putting themselves in a director’s shoes.  (Disney Animation now has a similar group is called the Story Trust)

When I was a publishing CEO, I was often asked to give my feedback on work in development.  I rarely, if ever, did unless I was deeply involved in the project and had earned trust.  Even then, I took efforts to base my input on specific experience or expertise and made sure to be clear that my comments were suggestions, not dictates.

Not everyone’s opinion counts.

The Purpose Of Feedback Is To Move The Project Forward

One of the most interesting things that Catmull had to say was that, although he had met an extraordinary amount of creative geniuses—and I would assume he included Steve Jobs in that group—he had never met “a single one who could articulate what it was that they were striving for when they started.”

Not a single one.

Often, feedback sessions are seen as a chance for people to give their input.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The purpose of creative feedback is to move the project forward. Anything that does not fulfill that purpose—not matter who it comes from—has no place in a feedback session.

There are, of course, times when a project has to be killed outright.  Not all ugly babies grow up to be beautiful.  Sometimes, an idea just doesn’t pan out.  Other times, a seemingly promising idea fails to improve.   When that happens, the only option is to pull the plug, but that is an executive decision to be made outside of the creative process, not within it.

As long as a project is alive, everyone needs to be committed to its success.  Having an idea is never as important—nor as hard—as developing it.

– Greg

2 Responses
  1. July 10, 2015

    Greg, a great piece. I especially want to underline one of your point “Not everyone’s opinion counts.” I have been lucky enough to talk with Ed Catmull and others at Pixar over the years, and one of they key things that they believe makes the braintrust work — and practice that Ed brought to Disney Animation studios, which he also heads — is to keep “suits” out of the feedback process, as they are prone to focus on money too much and don’t have the skill to understand what it takes to turn that ugly baby into something beautiful. To Job’s credit, his focus at both Apple and Pixar was always on quality and doing work that made people proud, and while he eventually got to the question of making money, he did it late and with proper precautions. In contrast, I still hear the question “how you going to monetize it” too early and too often from MBAs, VC’s, and senior execs… a question that would have doomed Google and Facebook for long stretches in their early days.

    Greg Reply:

    Thanks Bob. As I think you know, I’m a really big fan and really appreciate your insights. There is a lot of truth in what you say. Confusing product development with monetization strategies can certainly be a problem (and not just in the media business!)

    However, there is a more important reason to keep the creative process closed to outsiders. People who are not involved in the creative process simply don’t know what they’re talking about. Anybody can watch a movie or read an article, but that doesn’t mean they know how to create. Just like designing a microchip or building a financial report, there is an underlying process at work that needs to be learned and honed over time. If you’ve never done it before, you simply won’t be able to give feedback productively. You can offer an opinion, but not experience or expertise.

    (btw. One of my favorite sayings is that “opinions are like assholes, everybody’s got one and they’re usually full of shit).

    In my former company, we once had a CFO who had the unfortunate habit of “putting on his creative hat” every time someone from the creative side of the business walked into his office. He wasn’t giving a financial perspective (which would have actually been better), but it was still incredibly disruptive and we fired him within six months.

    As I used to tell my publishers, if you don’t want editors telling you how to set ad rates, don’t tell them how to create the product. Part of being a professional is respecting the expertise of others.

    – Greg

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